This Christmas I handed out two homemade mix CDs to friends and family: one has the unoriginal title “Alternative Nation,” and the other, “Robert’s Robyn,” recreates critic Robert Christgau’s preferred version of Robyn’s Body Talk. Three years ago I handed out fun single-CD histories of both rap and jazz, and this is my attempt to make it some kind of holiday tradition. I also asked my friend, visual artist Wes Stitt, to provide album covers for this year’s selections; the cover for “Robert’s Robyn” is posted above.
As you may expect, “Alternative Nation” is an overview of early ‘90s rock, which we called “alternative” back in the day, though that label doesn’t seem as necessary or descriptive now as it once was. Here’s the track list:
1. R.E.M., “Pop Song 89”
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”
3. Sonic Youth, “Kool Thing”
4. Pixies, “Velouria”
5. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
6. Pearl Jam, “Alive”
7. Ministry, “Jesus Built My Hotrod”
8. L7, “Pretend We’re Dead”
9. Radiohead, “Creep”
10. Smashing Pumpkins, “Today”
11. Liz Phair, “Divorce Song”
12. The Breeders, “Cannonball”
13. Beck, “Loser”
14. Soundgarden, “My Wave”
15. Hole, “Miss World”
16. Pavement, “Gold Soundz”
17. Veruca Salt, “Seether”
18. Green Day, “Burnout”
19. Elastica, “Connection”
20. PJ Harvey, “Down by the Water”
Perhaps it would have been hipper of me, and maybe even easier, to compile mostly lesser-known favorites for this CD. But I decided instead to stick with the fairly obvious stuff, presented chronologically. Except for “Down by the Water,” the songs end in 1994, which is the year many of my friends and I graduated from high school. I expected the CD to be nostalgic, and I expected it to rock, but I didn’t expect so many of the songs to be feminist and political, and then, further, to present these lyrical themes so baldly on each song’s surface. While I read plenty of press at the time concerning the “apathy” of such songs and performers, I didn’t remember this apathy carrying so much philosophical and political weight. And where hits by Tracy Chapman, Midnight Oil, Springsteen and Mellencamp from the ‘80s brought attention to the Other who struggled to get by both emotionally and economically within a large, relatively wealthy Western society, these ‘90s writers scoffed at the validity of the entire Western system and presented mainstream society as the Other. They naturalized what was once considered the margins, both musically and lyrically. And many of them were funny about it. And smart. Super smart.
None of this is news, of course, but I was surprised to realize just how present this ideology remains in the musical artifacts. R.E.M. parodies small talk and the basic assumption that verbal communication is inherently effective in “Pop Song 89.” Sonic Youth ends the bridge of “Kool Thing” with the sarcastic, “when you’re a star, I know that you’ll fix everything,” which digs hard into the self-righteousness of such late ‘80s star-activists as Sting and Peter Gabriel. L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” is a call to political action: the title hook is set up by, “they’ve got us in the palm of every hand (when we)” and continues, “they can’t hear a word we said/when we pretend we’re dead.” And I’m convinced Veruca Salt’s “Seether” is about the very real fear surrounding the untapped power of the feminine spirit.
And so on. Even less direct songs such as “Loser” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are wracked with disillusionment, and yet the speakers do not come across as powerless. At the time I figured the apathy discussed was a kind of resignation. But now I don’t think so. I think it was an assertion that a better world requires changes at a fundamental level. And in retrospect that fundamental change seems to have been a dislodging of the primacy of modernism in our daily lives. Not that we aren’t still trying to do things better, faster and stronger. But modernism isn’t the driving engine of mainstream society like it once was. Formally marginalized boutique cultures have an economic and social validity now that was not present in the 1980s. And I think this music provided a commentary for that change.
The second CD, “Robert’s Robyn,” was originally a gift to me from Robert Christgau. I met and interviewed him just after Christmas 2010, and before I left he handed me a couple of mix CDs. (I think these are CDs he was mailing to friends and family for Christmas that year.) Besides Robyn, he also gave me a Das Racist mix alluded to in the title of his review of their first two mixtapes. Anyway, I wanted to share this with my own friends and family because meeting my idol was a big deal, and I consider this gift from him a symbol of what I now consider a friendship. So here you have a small piece of an important moment in my life. The track list itself was later published in an essay for Christgau’s Rock & Roll & column at Barnes & Noble Review. Read the essay for an explanation of the CD.
Both mix CDs are burned from Apple Lossless files and are therefore CD quality. So enjoy! And Merry Christmas!